UPDATE: adds a statement from two Tbilisi-based watchdog groups in 11th and 12th paragraphs and also a statement on a separate case from the State Audit Agency in 13th paragraph.
Thousands of satellite dishes, which the Tbilisi-based Maestro TV was planning to hand out, was seized as part of the ongoing investigation into alleged vote-buying related to Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chief prosecutor’s office said on July 11.
On July 2 Maestro TV announced that one of its co-owners and its financial backer, Maka Asatiani, was planning significant investments for further development of the television channel.
The TV channel is available through some cable providers mainly in Tbilisi and via satellite.
As part of the efforts to broaden scope of audience, Maestro TV said earlier this month, it was planning to launch a campaign ‘Maestro in Every Family’, involving “handing out” satellite dish antennas to households in the provinces. At the time Ilia (Bacho) Kikabidze, general director of the Maestro TV, declined to discuss financial details of the project, but said that the plan was to hand out satellite antennas for “minimal, symbolic fees”.
The announcement by Maestro TV came less than two weeks after the authorities seized on June 21 tens of thousands of satellite dishes owned by Global TV, a cable and satellite TV provider, in which brother of Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is a co-owner. The satellite dishes were seized as part of an investigation into vote-buying scheme allegedly orchestrated by Ivanishvili and for which the billionaire opposition politician was fined with GEL 63.1 million.
The chief prosecutor’s office said in a statement on July 11, that “under instructions” from Ivanishvili-affiliated firm Elita Burji, Maestro TV imported “thousands of satellite antennas.”
“The investigation has sufficient evidence to believe that the antennas will be distributed in accordance to the scheme of vote-buying previously used by Global Contact Consulting [Global TV],” the chief prosecutor’s office said. “The investigation aims at avoiding criminalization of electoral processes and ensuring respect of the rights and freedoms of individuals and political parties.”
One of Maestro TV’s co-owners, Mamuka Glonti, said the TV channel bought up to 10,000 satellite dishes, which were seized while going through customs clearance.
Bacho Kikabidze, general director of Maestro TV, said the allegation by the chief prosecutor’s office was “absurd”; he denying having links with Ivanishvili-affiliated companies or with the politics.
“I do not represent any political organization and talking about political links is absurd,” Kikabidze said. “They [the authorities] do not even know exact terms under which we were planning to hand out satellite dishes… We are now in the process of finalizing these terms.”
Tbilisi-based watchdog groups, Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyer's Association, called on the Tbilisi City Court and the Prosecutor's Office to release relevant evidence and present an adequate legal justification for the seizing of satellite dishes.
“Preventing the distribution of satellite dishes – which Maestro has claimed will be financed by its owners – may be publicly perceived as a step that could limit citizen's access to media. Any actions taken against media outlets should be proportionate and be carried out with a maximum of transparency. It should also be clearly explained to the public how the distribution of satellite dishes by Maestro qualifies as vote buying for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition,” reads a statement by the two watchdog groups.
Also on July 12, the State Audit Service, which is in charge of monitoring political finances, said that it examined a case when a ruling party majoritarian MP candidate in single-mandate constituency of Poti in western Georgia, Tengiz Sarishvili, gave last month to a local resident as a present a satellite dish. The agency said it was a violation of law and requested the court for relevant sanctions.